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That night they made camp in a small cave mouth a klick away from Anvil Rock. Rin checked her gear, lingering for a moment on the AGG-12 grenade launcher in the trunk of the LAV. Also Dad's, like all my guns, thought Rin. She had brought it on a whim. Damn thing only has one grenade left in it. But when else was she gonna get to use it?
She took a vac flask of rich skalet minestrone that Rita and Jasper had made and warmed it on the ancient military-issued coil heater Shaw kept in the Flyswatter. While the soup bubbled, they gathered around the dim glow, warming frosty fingers.
Shaw had been silent since his plan had failed, and he was silent now, staring into the middle distances.
When the soup was done, they simply sat. After a few moments, Champlain said to himself, "Hang on…" and went rooting into his tool bag. After a bit of rummaging he retrieved a flask, unscrewed the cap, and took a small swig.
"Took a sabbatical on Shiloh… It's supposed to be the best in the sector—whiskey, I mean."
He held it out to Rin, who smiled inwardly, accepted it, and tipped a dram into her mouth. The smooth, hot burn of the Shiloh whiskey hit her tongue and radiated into her frame, cutting the nighttime desert chill. Rin looked at Shaw and offered the booze.
Shaw considered the flask for a moment and seemed to make a small decision. He reached out, took the whiskey, gave the bouquet an appreciative sniff, and sipped.
"You did fine out there today, the both of you. Something spooked 'em, and that ain't your fault. Don't always know what will make them go." He took another swallow and passed the flask back to Champlain. Then he spoke: "Mutas are born to frenzy. Frenzy for food, frenzy to spread. Frenzy for blood. A mutalisk can smell a single drop of blood on the wind two klicks away."
Rin took the flask as Champlain passed it, but she didn't drink. The light of the coil burned in Shaw's eyes, burned deep. Like it lives inside him.
"In a way, the frenzying makes them like us. Gotta… take advantage of what they want. Show it to 'em. Let 'em smell it. That's what makes 'em knot up on each other, crazy and single-minded like that. That's when you wipe 'em out."
Rin sipped the whiskey and felt an involuntary shiver travel up her spine. Champlain had trouble clearing his throat. "Ha—How did you learn so much about them? Not, ah, not everybody knows about the Higgs-Davis paroxysm behavioral model… A handful of my colleagues, maybe, and… servicemen… the ones who… you know…"
Shaw was quiet a moment as he accepted the flask.
"When the curtain was falling on Mar Sara, when it had gotten bad—with the protoss hanging over the lump of glass that used to be Chau Sara and turning their heads toward her sister—an attempt was made to evacuate the planet. You've both read about it and seen the holovids and all that."
Now he drank, not a tentative sip but a deep pull.
"I was CSM aboard the Hoosier, a battlecruiser of some twelve hundred men. We were scrambled overnight to aid the evac effort, no time to properly supply, no time to reload the armory—just into the big tin can with a prayer on our lips."
"You were on the Hoosier?!" squeaked Champlain before Rin could jab him with her elbow.
"We dusted off with four thousand colonists, making like hell for the evac point, half expecting protoss ion cannons to lance through us at any moment. But we didn't know much about the zerg in them days, didn't know that they came in such variety, didn't know that some of 'em could fly in space as easy as in atmo."
The desert silence had grown thick. Rin was aware of Shaw's breathing and Champlain's and her own, and it seemed a wet, loud, unnatural sound here, where stillness was called for.
"Five thousand souls lifted off of Mar Sara that day. Five thousand cried out as we hit that cloud of mutas."
He paused for a deep, rattling breath, and Rin was reminded again of her dad's old chainsaw sputtering, bound deep in the brush, and running out of fuel.
"Sixty-three of us got picked up in that jump-pod four days later."
"The lucky sixty-three," added Champlain, nodding gravely.
"Lucky." Shaw laughed, a mirthless sound. "Lucky."